Kudos to Philly police for sending recruits to Smithsonian African American Museum | Jenice Armstrong

A group of over 100 Philadelphia police recruits tour the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, July 3, 2018. The trip was one of three museum-based training programs designed to help the recruits understand the root and context of strained community-police relations through a historical perspective.

Relations between the cops and black America have always been dicey.

Certain recent, highly publicized fatal encounters between African Americans and law enforcement have only made things worse. That’s why it’s such a good idea that the Philadelphia Police Department now makes a point of sending recruits to visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. They’ve taken five classes so far. The hope is that by helping recruits understand the black experience, they can do a better job of policing.

“I’ve always said we don’t always get it right. What we strive to do is to get it better,”  said Police Commissioner Richard Ross when I asked him about last week’s trip.   “I believe this trip can help some folks understand that.”

A photographer and I tagged along on this visit, which is how we ended up on a lower level of the two-year-old museum last Tuesday as a tour guide detailed the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery. At one point, she began singing the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water, which was used by enslaved Africans to communicate among themselves about their escape plans without letting slave owners know.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children
Wade in the water,
God’s gonna trouble the water   

Camera icon HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
More than 100 Philadelphia police recruits pause inside the Contemplation Court inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

This was my second visit since the museum opened in 2016.  Much of  the history she shared were stories I’d heard so many times growing up that I felt I could have grabbed her microphone and given the tour myself.

That’s just my experience, though. I’m an African American woman, the daughter of two black educators who made a point of teaching their children about black history.

But what about all of those fresh-faced recruits, the members of Class 385? Out of 121 recruits, just 28 were black men and women. The vast majority were white men and women, with a sprinkling of Hispanics and Asians.

I watched as they gazed solemnly at an actual slave cabin housed inside the museum and at the photos of 1960s-era students and other demonstrators who were fire-hosed and had police dogs sicced on them for daring to think they should be allowed to vote or order food at a lunch counter.

The recruits were silent when they spotted the actual casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was fatally beaten in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi. They appeared especially alert when our guide stopped in front of an actual guard tower from the infamous maximum security prison operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, and listened intently as tour guide Janice Ferebee made the connection between slavery and modern-day mass incarceration.

Camera icon HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Tour guide Janice Ferebee leads a group of Philadelphia police recruits on a tour of the new Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Some of the recruits lagged behind and read every word of inscriptions under the exhibits well after the rest of the group had moved on. One recruit appeared close to tears as she took it all in.

There was some joking around, but mostly they maintained a respectful air as they made their way through the vast space near the Washington Monument on the National Mall.

Oh, sure, a few looked bored. I sensed defensiveness among several.  None were especially chatty when I attempted  to interview them, no doubt nervous about possibly saying the wrong thing.

“I think they get it, but they are concerned about how to speak on it,” Ferebee told me later. “Because of the social climate today, I don’t think they were comfortable asking a lot of questions.”

Although the recruits didn’t talk much to me when I tried to interview them, what I hope they took away is an understanding of the painful history of police brutality against African Americans. I hope they recognized that overpolicing is real, as is racial profiling, and are sensitive to that when dealing with people of color.